Raising Baby Chicks: Brooder Box Basics
It’s time to build a brooder box!
Actually, in a perfect world you would have the brooder box ready and heating up a day before your chicks arrive. There are a few very basic things you need to know when building a brooder. Some people like to make it very technical and scientific, but I’m gonna give it to you in just a few simple steps- because building a brooder box really doesn’t have to be complicated.
Here’s what you’ll need:
- A container/box (specifics to follow)
- A Heat Lamp and Heat Bulb
- A Thermometer
- A watering base
- A feeder base
- Two 1-Quart Jars (for feeder and waterer)
- Chick Starter Feed
- Baby chicks
You could go the more expensive route and buy a Heated Poultry Brooder, but you’d save some money by making your own out of whatever you have on hand if you are able to do so. Most people use either a cardboard or wooden box, or a plastic storage tote like I have pictured above. However, almost anything about a foot deep will do. (Side note: In the picture above, the chicks are a little bit too crowded. I actually had more than I expected to hatch out of the incubator, and ended up moving these babies to a larger box. But at least you can get an idea of my setup.)
I’ve seen people make a brooder in a standard bathtub by lining it with plastic, then adding newspapers and pine shavings for bedding. An old baby playpen might also work well. Kiddie pools are another inexpensive option for a homemade brooder. Practically anything with walls around it will do.
Here’s what you need to know before deciding on the right brooder for you…
Size- For the first four weeks, baby chicks need about 1/4 square foot of space per chick. From four to eight weeks, baby chicks need 1/2 square foot of space per chick. I’m not saying you should calculate space needed exactly, but just eyeball it using this recommendation as a general guide, and make sure your chicks aren’t on top of each other in the brooder. If they’re crowded, they can smother each other to death.
Depth– Anything 12″ deep will keep baby chicks from escaping for several weeks without the need for a cover. If you go much less than that, by about three weeks of age the chicks will be able to fly out so you’ll need a cover.
Cover– Some people like to put hardware cloth over the top of their brooder to keep their chicks from flying out, or to keep children, cats, or other animals from bothering the chicks. If you do decide to cover your brooder, just make sure that there is plenty of ventilation going on.
Location- We usually keep our brooder in the house until we can’t stand the smell and the peeping-all-night-long, by which time the chicks are usually a few weeks old and we can move them to a separate pen out in the chicken run. When we’re ready for the chicks to go out, we put a heat lamp in the outdoor brooder and move the babies there. Mainly, we keep the chicks indoors for the first few weeks so we can keep a close eye on them, and for the kids to enjoy watching.
If your brooder will be outdoors from day one, make sure it is in a dry and draft free location. Cool air will chill your baby chicks and will quickly kill them.
What you put in the bottom of your brooder box is important. Bedding is necessary to keep your chicks from walking in their own filth. It is also important that your chicks are walking on a non-slippery surface. If your chicks slip around, they can develop splayed legs, a crippling debilitation.
Hardware cloth (wire) does not make a good flooring for a brooder. It is hard on baby chicks’ feet, they can get stuck and injured in it, and it also prevents them from building up an immunity to coccidiosis. Wire flooring is not a good option.
There are several bedding materials which are perfectly suitable for baby chicks:
- a thick layer of newspaper underneath strips of paper towels
- old rags (avoid terry towels as baby chicks can get their feet stuck in the loops)
- shredded paper
- pine shavings (NEVER use cedar, it is toxic to chicks)
- dried grass clippings (from unsprayed yard)
- chopped, dry leaves
- a non-adhesive Non-Slip Shelf Liner
My favorite bedding to use at this point is the shelf liner. It makes a nice, thick padding, and it’s washable which makes it a very inexpensive option if you reuse it over and over. And unlike wood chips and other materials which constantly get into the chicks’ food and water, the shelf liner stays in place and doesn’t make a bigger mess.
Heat Lamp & Thermometer
Baby chicks need heat. They will die without it. In nature, the mother hen uses her body to keep her baby chicks warm during the first few weeks of their lives. You need to replicate this warmth in your brooder.
The Lamp– Like brooders, there are several different options when it comes to your heat source, ranging from expensive infrared heaters to the common household light bulb. Don’t feel obligated to spend a fortune or buy the most “promising” product on the market. Your heat lamp doesn’t have to be anything fancy. We like to use a clamping lampso we can clip it up and hang it over the brooder. Whatever you use, you do want to make sure that the fixture doesn’t get too hot when kept on constantly. You also want something that can be secured, and won’t fall onto the chicks or into the bedding. You can pick up a heat lamp at a farm supply store, or order one online.
The Bulb– Again, there are choices here. Typically, you would use one of the following types of bulbs…
- Incandescent bulbs– Otherwise known as regular ol’ household bulbs. This is what we use. Don’t use anything less than a 75 watt bulb to start with though, or you won’t get enough heat.
- Incandescent floodlight– Designed for outdoor use; also a good option.
- Halogen bulbs– These last longer than incandescent bulbs, and provide more heat for less energy.
- Infrared Heat Lamp Bulb(red or white)- More expensive, but they last longer and provide more heat than regular bulbs for less energy. Some say the red glow helps prevent chicks from pecking each other, but I’ve never had a problem with this. A 125-watt bulb or greater should be sufficient.
- Ceramic bulb (or ceramic infrared heat emitter)- More expensive, but it does not emit light, only heat. It will last much longer than other bulbs, and uses less energy. You’ll need a 100-watt ceramic bulb.
Or… you could spend a little more and buy a heat panel such as the EcoGlow. Heat panels are definitely more efficient than a lamp, and there is no fear of them falling over.
Personally, I’ve found our clamping lamp with a 75 watt regular household bulb to work just fine.
Thermometer- you’ll also need a thermometerin your brooder box to tell you what temperature it is under your heat source. Keep the thermometer directly under the light for best results.
- Start the brooder at between 90-95*F, and reduce it by about 5*F every week until the brooder is at about 70*. You can reduce the heat by raising the lamp or heat source, or by switching to a lower-watt bulb.
- If the room they are in is already warm, or if it’s warm outdoors, you won’t need as much heat.
- Keep a steady temperature day and night.
- Chicks need a steady heat until they’ve completely feathered out, meaning they’ve lost the baby fluff and their true feathers have grown in.
- Generally, you can plan on having your chicks under a light for 3-6 weeks, depending on their breed, how many you have, and the weather. (The more chicks you have, the more body heat they generate.)
TIP: Watching your chicks is the best way to know if you need to adjust their heat. If the chicks stay huddled underneath the light, they’re cold and you should either lower the light source or increase the bulb wattage. If the chicks stay as far as they can from the light, it’s too hot. You know your chicks are comfortable when they’re active and spread out evenly around the brooder.
Waterer & Feeder
Before your chicks arrive, you want to be sure you have a proper watering container and feeder ready to go. You’ll also want some Chick Starter Feedto fill your feeder with.
If you’ve mail-ordered chicks, it is recommended that you put a little sugar in the water to give them a boost of energy.
Mix 1/2 c. table sugar into 1 qt. of water for 1-2 days.
When you fill the chicks’ watering container, use lukewarm water (test on the inside of your wrist, like you would a baby’s bottle). Cold water will chill baby chicks.
The Waterer– you can buy one onlineor at a farm supply store, or you can make your own. There are plenty of tutorials online for making one out of recycled materials. Watering nipples are also an option.
You basically need something that won’t spill, and that isn’t big enough that the chicks can get in it and drown.
TIP: When your baby chicks arrive, dip each one’s beak into the water to show it where the water is. They don’t have to drink, but at least now they know where they can go to drink when they’re ready.
The Feeder– You can buy one like this, or make something yourself. Whatever you use, it’s best to have a container that won’t spill, and that the chicks can’t walk around and poop in.
*Be sure to keep the food and water containers filled at all times.
Your brooder box is ready and your chicks are eagerly awaiting their new home. Make sure that clean bedding is down, the food and water is in place, and the heat lamp has heated the box to 90-95*F before putting the chicks in. If hatching chicks in an incubator, allow them to dry off completely before putting them in the brooder. Mail-ordered or locally purchased baby chicks will be ready to go straight into the brooder box.
*A really good resource you might want to get your hands on is Hatching & Brooding Your Own Chicksby Gail Damerow. This is by far one of my favorite chick raising books.
As you can see, creating the perfect brooder box can be as expensive or inexpensive as you want it to be. A 100% homemade set up can be just as efficient as anything you could buy from the store. So don’t feel like it’s beyond your budget to raise chicks!
With good care, your baby chicks will thrive in their new home. During these next few weeks, be thinking about where you’ll be moving your babies once they’re old enough to live without the additional heat.
Have you raised baby chicks yet? Got any advice you’d like to add?
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